February 20, 2004

 

 

USDA May Increase Cattle Testing Beyond 40,000 Animals

 

The United States may increase testing of cattle for mad cow disease beyond the 40,000 animals it planned to sample in 2004, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said on Thursday.

 

The administration has repeatedly said it plans to test about 40,000 cattle this year, double the number checked in 2003 for the brain-wasting disease. Veneman, speaking to reporters at the USDA's annual agriculture outlook conference, left the door open for even more testing.

 

"We're committed to the 40,000, and we may be going beyond that," Veneman said. She did not elaborate.

 

The Bush administration is under growing pressure from Congress, academic experts and trading partners to expand its mad cow testing program after the first U.S. case was discovered in Washington state in December.

 

The Republican-led House Government Reform Committee on Tuesday urged the USDA to test the brains of all adult cattle too sick or injured to walk, called downers, as recommended by an international review panel. Out of 35 million U.S. cattle slaughtered annually, an estimated 200,000 fit into that category.

 

The international panel said earlier this month that there was a "high probability" for more mad cow cases in the United States and recommended a package of new safeguards.

 

Veneman said the panel's recommendations were under consideration, and the USDA would decide on its next actions in the "near future."

 

The House committee expressed concern about the effectiveness of USDA's testing program after questions were raised about how officials discovered the mad cow case in the United States last year.

 

Three Washington state officials that handled the infected cow at the slaughter plant in early December say the cow was not a downer animal as the USDA has repeatedly asserted. But a USDA veterinarian at the plant said the cow was unable to walk.

 

"Our veterinary records from the veterinarian at the plant clearly state that the cow was a downer," Veneman said. She added that the USDA's office of inspector general was looking into the conflicting views about the cow's health.

 

Japan, the top buyer of U.S. beef, has indicated it wants the USDA to follow its example and test all cattle for mad cow disease. U.S. government and industry officials have rejected the approach, saying it is costly and unnecessary.

 

Veneman also said the USDA was reviewing Tokyo's request to lift the U.S. import ban on Japanese beef shipments due to its own discovery of mad cow disease.

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